There is a lot of news out of London this week. Donald Trump is visiting Theresa May, who may or may not be in her final days as prime minister. And, yes, the World Cup seems to have captured the attention of a nation waiting for success longer even than the Toronto Maple Leafs. (The Leafs’ last Stanley Cup was in 1967; England last won the World Cup in 1966.)
Lost in all of that was the news that the United Kingdom has appointed a Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The new envoy is Lord Tariq Mahmood Ahmad, Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the United Nations. He also carries a brief for combatting sexual violence in war. Lord Ahmad is an Ahmadiyya Muslim, a group that knows firsthand religious persecution.
Ahmad has worked on religious-freedom issues for some time and, given his cabinet rank and responsibility for the UN and Commonwealth files, will be able to ensure a high priority for religious freedom in British diplomacy.
The contrast with Canada is striking.
In 2013, the Harper government established an Office of Religious Freedom (ORF) in the foreign affairs department, with a $5-million budget for practical program funding abroad, and a mandate to raise the profile of religious liberty across the gamut of Canadian diplomacy.
A volunteer interfaith advisory committee of religious leaders from across Canada was established to assist the new ORF. I was appointed its chairman in 2015.
The new Trudeau government was cool to the ORF. With the prime minister’s lack of interest in religious freedom, both at home and abroad, and the hapless quality of his first Global Affairs minister, Stéphane Dion, the ORF languished for a few months before being killed off entirely in March 2016.
In its place was instituted an Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion (OHRFI), which in turn had three divisions: Human Rights and Indigenous Affairs, Inclusion and Religious Freedom, and Democracy. Plenty of new letterhead with longer acronyms, but the bureaucratic rearranging signalled the end of any significant activity.
The previous ORF was headed by a special ambassador for religious freedom, a high-profile position encouraged to take public diplomacy seriously. The new OHRFI is headed by a faceless official without any public profile.
The Global Affairs website list of its religious-freedom activities was last updated more than year ago, with nothing listed after October 2016.
The Global Affairs website list of its religious-freedom activities was last updated more than year ago
The new office does precious little in-country programming to foster religious-freedom education and institution building abroad. The previous ORF had over 20 projects in almost a dozen countries. The ORF had a dedicated budget for religious-freedom programs, but the new OHRFI has no budget of its own. It has to compete with all the other bureaus at foreign affairs for funding, a competition that it does not engage in with great vitality.
The new office no longer engages in bilateral diplomacy with countries where religious freedom is under threat, but limits itself to indirect means at multilateral forums.
When there was an actual religious liberty crisis that the government wished to engage, it enlisted Bob Rae as a special envoy for the Rohingya in Myanmar, having eviscerated its own in-house resources.
At home, the new office has held events within Global Affairs to raise religious literacy among diplomats about Indigenous spirituality, atheists, non-believers, and Islam. Two years after its start, it has not yet got around to the world’s most persecuted group: Christians. It might find time for that this fall.
Canada has abandoned our leadership on international religious freedom just as our allies are increasing theirs.
Later this month American Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will be holding a first-ever “ministerial” on advancing religious freedom, a convocation of diplomats, civil society representatives and religious leaders to assess what’s working and to share best practices. Canada’s delegation will have the task of explaining why our government has lost interest.